The quest for durable solutions: Informal settlements and IDPs in Baghdad

The number of informal settlements in Baghdad is increasing, and the Baghdad Provincial Council estimates that there are more than 220 settlements today. Government officials say this problem did not exist in the city before 2003 and that it was aggravated by the sectarian violence of 2006.

Many of the settlements house Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), as well as economic migrants who are coming to Baghdad in search for work but cannot find affordable housing. These informal areas have no or little access to water, sanitation, electricity, schools or health centres.

As a follow-up to the preparation of a strategy for durable shelter for IDPs and returning refugees, developed together with the Government of Iraq in 2011, UN-Habitat, with funding by the US Government, implemented the project “Initiating Durable Shelter Solutions for Iraqi IDPs and Returnees in Baghdad.” The project aims to support the Iraqi government in implementing pilot projects that provide IDPs and other vulnerable people living in informal settlements with long-term housing solutions, and continues the development of the legal, financial and institutional framework so that actions can be undertaken at scale. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has been an implementing partner during the year, working with informal communities on advocacy and practical steps towards reaching secure land tenure and accessing basic services from the government.

As part of the project, UN-Habitat supported the creation of a technical committee, consisting of the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, Ministry of Housing and Construction, Ministry of Planning, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works, Baghdad Municipality and Baghdad Provincial Council. Acknowledging that there is not one single solution to this problem, the committee has developed three different approaches on how to address the settlements: land sharing, upgrading and relocation.

Land sharing involves the redevelopment of an informal settlement to allow space for dense social housing, private housing, commercial uses and governmental uses. This allows communities to remain intact, retaining livelihoods and community cohesion, and allows profitable ventures to offset investment costs of social housing for the most vulnerable.  This “value-capture” mechanism allows land sharing to be implemented at scale, as initial capital investment on social housing is reimbursed through the sale of commercial land. The project has developed pre-feasibility studies on a number of sites, showing that the approach would be favourable in Baghdad, and a feasibility study on one selected site that is now in a negotiation process.

Upgrading can be used where land value is not high and allows informal settlers to stay in their current housing. They are supported by formalizing land ownership through a system of regular, affordable payments; this allows the government to provide infrastructure and improve their settlement in line with Iraqi standards. Two pilot projects have been initiated and information has been collected on livelihood, housing status and income. Settlement improvement plans have been drawn up by inhabitants with the support of the Norwegian Refugee Council and UN-Habitat.

Relocation is the least preferable option, where people are moved to a new location and will have to be provided with housing units - which is often a costly and complicated process - and where livelihood in the new location is often the biggest challenge. In this regard, two of the member entities of the technical committee, the Baghdad Provincial Council and the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works, have initiated projects.

In addition, a district strategy has been developed for 9-Neessan district in the northeast of Baghdad to identify which approach could be used for 37 different settlements in the area. The next step is to suggest a strategy for the whole city.

In order for governmental staff to continue the work, guidelines with step-by-step suggestions on how to implement and choose the different approaches, conduct participatory settlement planning and other important steps in providing durable housing solutions have been developed. The guidelines will be iteratively updated as more experience is being gathered throughout implementation. Capacity development of staff from the entities in the technical committee is also being conducted through continuous trainings and training of trainers, where international experts are invited to Iraq to share international best practices and develop Iraq-specific approaches together with the participants. This is also a step in enabling the government to follow through with the different approaches.

Livelihood is one of the biggest challenges in finding durable solutions for informal settlements. Therefore, UN-Habitat is coordinating with the World Food Program (WFP) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to implement their different approaches in the settlements, including skills training and generating employment through neighbourhood improvement projects. UN-Habitat is also working with microfinance institutions and the National Housing Fund to develop modalities for short-term housing improvement loans that can target IDPs and other vulnerable people, particularly in relation to neighbourhood upgrading projects.

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